Kristen Paruginog held two jobs during the four years she was in an abusive relationship, but neither offered a respite from her tumultuous home life.
Paruginog’s abuser called her office constantly and sent harassing text messages if she didn’t pick up the phone. Once, he showed up unannounced, locked her in his car, and drove off in the middle of the day.
“The entire office knew I was the girl with the abusive boyfriend,” she says. “That’s what I was known for.”
If Paruginog’s employer had a policy for handling domestic violence, or any victim resources, no one told her about them. Except for one brief, uncomfortable conversation with a supervisor — prompted by her then-partner’s arrest on work property — the abuse never even came up.
Much has changed in the years since Paruginog left that job, and that boyfriend.
On Monday, New York City mayor Bill De Blasio signed a bill expanding the city’s paid sick leave laws to include “safe time” for domestic violence. It joins cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis, and states like California and Washington, that guarantee paid time off for victims to meet with law enforcement, move away from an abuser, and arrange for other potentially life-saving services. The New York bill is one of the most progressive laws to date, extending protections to victims of sexual assault, and stalking.
Employers, for their part, still have some catching up to do. A 2017 survey from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that about 42% of U.S. employers don’t offer paid domestic violence leave, and another 19% said they’re “not sure” if they would cover it. That means more than half of U.S. employers don't guarantee paid safe time, or haven't formalized it into company policy.
It’s not that companies are against giving employees time off for domestic violence services, experts say. By and large, if an employer has paid sick leave, they’ll let workers use it for "safe time." But domestic violence is inherently isolating — unless a company is facing an incident directly, it's likely unaware of how these situations impact its workers.
“The sad reason some companies start to think about it is because they had someone who died because of domestic violence,” says Kim Wells, executive director of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, which helps companies create domestic leave policies and trainings. “Most have never thought about this as a preventative measure.”
But more policies are slated to help victims in the upcoming year. The national push to federally mandate paid sick leave, led by a congressional bill re-introduced by Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro and Washington Senator Patty Murray in March, lists DV as a central tenet. But that kind of sweeping legislation is unlikely to pass, leaving reforms up to cities and states. In 2018, Washington and Nevada will join six other states with domestic violence policies on the books (Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Vermont).
As more of these policies roll out, advocates say, the roughly 1.3 million American women who experience domestic violence annually will have an easier time getting back on their feet. Victims of "severe intimate partner violence" lose the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs each year as a direct result of the abuse, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Paid leave gives them the time and space to turn their lives around without worrying if their jobs are at stake.
It's good for business, too.
“Leave gives a survivor a modicum of control in the workplace," says Linda A. Seabrook, general counsel of the Washington, D.C. nonprofit, Futures Without Violence. “If a survivor knows she’s supported in her workplace, and has the ability to take time off to go to the hospital, get a restraining order, and do whatever else she needs to, she’s going to be a better, more productive worker.”
For now, there are plenty of kinks to iron out. Laws vary by locality, so many employer policies that do exist are clunky and convoluted. For example, some companies with multiple locations specify that only employees in certain locations are guaranteed domestic violence leave, or allude to laws that “may provide time away” for domestic violence victims.
For states that don't have domestic violence policies on the books, particularly those with disproportionately high rates of domestic violence, like Tennessee and Louisiana, this further muddles what resources are available for victims of abuse.
Disclosure is another gray area. While most safe time laws, like their sick leave counterparts, prohibit companies from requiring employees to disclose the reason for absence, they do allow companies to ask for a note from a medical provider to prove there is a valid reason for the leave — a barrier some victims, who may be too embarrassed or scared to talk to a doctor, aren't willing to cross.
Still, it's clear workplace complacency is changing. An outpouring of support for victims of assault, instigated recently by reports of alleged abuse from Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, and Roger Ailes, and underscored by stories shared through hashtags like #metoo, have sparked a national conversation about how powerful men manipulate, subjugate, and harass women.
Soon, advocates say, this could be the catalyst for national change.
“The workplace should be a community of support, and intervention,” Seabrook says. “The law that’s enacted is the floor. We encourage employers to be the ceiling.”